Day 8

(I skipped Day 7 because the prompt didn’t quite work for me.)

In the early days of grief, I kept thinking about Lorelai Gilmore from The Gilmore Girls. She wasn’t a single mom because she was widowed, so the circumstances are wildly different. But, I think about her living her life, mostly happily, successfully, fully, and I have some version of a role model for all of this. But she’s still not quite it. The circumstances of single parents are often out of pain, but my circumstances aren’t a choice. My circumstances were thrust upon me.

There are lots of images of parents raising kids as widows and widowers, but they’re usually somewhat of an antagonist to the child’s protagonist. Think parents in Disney movies or other fairy tales.

So, maybe it’s conceited, or maybe it’s practical, but my north star, my guide through grief, is me.

There’s no one I know who is navigating this as holistically and healthily as I am. There’s no one else with a small child and a small business. There’s no one with enough overlap that I feel I have a path ahead of me. So I’m forging my own.

And I’m happy to do that. I’ve done a lot of bushwhacking in my time and being a guide for others is what I do for a living.

Some days it can get hard. Some days it can get scary. The metaphorical looming cliff is when I’m in the middle of a massive showdown with my toddler over toy clean up and I wonder if this is the moment I create irreversible damage to his psyche and he becomes a serial killer.

But, more likely, I’m navigating it as well as my loved ones with partners. Even with the handicap of the grief and the life I didn’t ask for, I’m somehow making lemonade out of lemons. Or at least lemon water.

The thing that I didn’t have an example for is the ebb and flow of grief. I always thought it was a constant thing. Either you were in mourning forever, on the verge of tears, not eat or sleeping, staring despondently out the window. Or, you were “recovered” and living your life, occasionally reflecting on your loved one’s death with sadness, but the kind of sadness that is pretty and unobtrusive. The kind that would be painted by a Renaissance artist. “Portrait of a widow in the parlor” or something.

In reality, I never forget Andy has died. But I feel it more or less depending upon the circumstances. Right now, while my son is happy and my cat is splayed across my arms and my cup of tea is warm by my side, it’s a gentle day at the beach, it’s low tide and we can walk relatively easily and see all the beautiful shells beneath us. “Us” in this case is me and my son. I rarely think about my grief without him in the picture.

But last night, after an epic 2 hour fight with my kiddo about putting toys away that resulted in the harshest consequences I’ve ever doled out (I took his fire truck away for a day!), the sea was suddenly stormy and I was drowning and I laid on my bed afterwards and sobbed. And it was scary sadness. The kind that you see people do when they’ve been involuntarily locked up. In that moment, the situation felt involuntary. Sure, I signed up for temper tantrums, but I didn’t sign up to do it alone. I signed up for a partner and confidante and tag-teamer. To have to check in with myself that many times about whether I was doing it “right” was exhausting. Fortunately, I believe that Andy was hanging out with us, so I felt a gentle nudge every time I felt unsure and kept to my course. But that creates decision fatigue. And decision fatigue is, well, fatiguing.

In the course of this new pandemic paradigm, I’ve had to make a lot of choices by myself. I got more used to the level of decision making I had after Andy’s death, but now having to make a ton of choices akin to newborn days where it was all new and it could all be right or wrong and I was alone, it’s a lot and it’s fatiguing. And the hardest part is that there isn’t a point where my favorite person comes home. There isn’t a point where I feel relief to have a partner again. It’s just endless hours and days and months and years ahead of me.

And no one I know, no one I see is experiencing this. So, I’m my role model. Or at least the idealized version of me that is handling all of this relatively gracefully and realistically is my role model. And she is not all that different from me, it turns out.

Day 6

The cruelty of grief isn’t within me. It’s within the carefully avoided glances, the tiptoe around my broken heart. It’s in the judgment that forgets that I am not normal, typical right now. I am hollowed out, missing, rebuilding.

The cruelty of grief is when I am held to the same rubric as someone who is still living their chosen life. Even in the discomfort or pain of that life, they are still choosing it. I did not choose this life and to measure my worth/value/productivity with the same yardstick is a cruelty.

Kindness looks like the check-in despite a lack of response, in the gracious rescheduling again, in the dropped off meal or the offer to watch over my child.

In myself, Kindness looks like space. Spaciousness. A lack of sharp corners and bars to be held to. It looks like, for the first time, time. And how convenient that the entire world is taking time right now. My grief was willing to travel with me through work and play, only occasionally throwing temper tantrums when it went ignored too long. Now, my grief gets to sit with me while I read, write, watch TV, hang with my kid, go for a walk, silently stew about the state of the world–coronavirus.

It is happy for the time and I am happy to hear it. It is not wrong in its feelings–anger, injustice, sadness, ambivalence, joy, terror, ennui–all are right and welcome.

The pause, the kindness the world has granted me, allows me to be a hostess to my grief. And I give it coffee and cookies and a soft place to sleep with clean sheets and flowers. And I’ll make a home for it for as long as it wants. I’m not ready to let go of it yet, and it’s not ready to leave.

Day 5

Grief is a wild woman and she’ll take you when she wants to.

Grief stands in the corner of the room, martini in hand. She wears a fuchsia pink skirt suit, 80s-style with huge shoulder pads and a double breast. Her hair is teased high, her pumps match her suit. She smokes in the corner despite the fact that it’s 2020 and no one smokes indoors anymore. She doesn’t give a FUCK. Come tell her to stop, she will fuck you up.

She has one arm crossed over her chest, the fist supporting her bent elbow of her other arm. She leers at the party-goers. All of them causal, at ease, having fun.

Grief hates fun.

It’s time to shake this shit up.

“What a bunch of tools,” she says to no one, but to everyone. “Sitting here like everything is fucking fine. Like the world is fucking perfect.”

People are starting to look at her.

Good. That’s what she wants.

“That’s right, you heard me. You all are fucking lemmings with your perfect craft cocktails and your fucking kombucha chasers and your chinos that don’t fucking wrinkle because you paid extra for the fucking wrinkle-resistant fabric. Fuck your chinos. And fuck your ironic T-shirts. No one fucking cares about your sense of humor. You don’t have one if it needs to be on display!”

Everyone has stopped. Open mouthed, staring at Grief, who is just getting started.

“You all think you know,” she lurches forward. She’s not drunk. No, Grief can’t be blunted by anything. She’s unapologetic and now that she has all eyes on her, she starts gesturing wildly with her martini, letting the liquid slosh out onto the high end contemporary couch the host paid to have custom made.

Grief will not be paying for that cleaning bill.

“You know what? Your problems are small, minute, Lilliputian. No one fucking cares about your stock dividends or your diet or you marathon training, Allison,” Greif shoots a look at Allison, who had, in fact, been just speaking about her marathon training. Even now she’s in a running dress, which Grief think is just fucking ridiculous. A running dress?

We get it, Allison. You’re a runner now!” People are making glances amongst themselves. Some looks are nervous, some of full of pity, some are quietly applauding Grief for taking down Allison about her marathon training.

“And Greg,” Greif spits. Greg snaps his head up. He had been trying to stay hidden behind the man sitting next to him. He knew he was going to be a source for Grief’s ire.

“Can you stop it with the fucking travel blog? No one gives a shit that you go to Sweden or that bed and breakfast in fucking Butte. Stop trying to make yourself interesting. You’re just not.”

Greg is looking around wondering if this is true. No one steps up to defend him. But that could also be because Grief doesn’t stop when she gets started. Grief seems to always attack Greg. His blog is a particular source of fodder, as if Grief doesn’t like pretty pictures and sources for local honey. Greg once invited Grief to come with him on one of these trips, but she bailed at the last minute, citing “work” as an excuse. Grief works a lot so it wasn’t an implausible excuse.

The hostess comes over to Grief.

“Grief, honey, would you like something to eat? I have some great cheese in the kitchen.”

“I don’t want you goddamn cheese, Melanie. Your cheese is a fucking disaster and food won’t fix all these fucking lemmings,” Grief takes a swig of her drink, finishing it. She fishes the olive out of the glass and throws it in Melanie’s face, bouncing off her forehead. “What are you going to do, Melanie? I’m ruining a ‘lovely’ party. Again.”

She’s right, of course. Grief is ruining the party again. People are whispering, “Why does Melanie invite her if she always gets like this?”

Melanie looks at her guests. Then she looks at Grief. Grief is holding her empty glass, arms crossed, literally tapping her food. Waiting for a reaction from Melanie, from anyone. Anyone who will engage with her so she can explode, again. She likes explosions.

Melanie notices the purple splotches under Grief’s eyes, the full coverage foundation that isn’t quite covering, the attempt Grief has taken to hide, to cover up her hideous parts. But Grief doesn’t know…she’s not hideous. Grief doesn’t see herself as beautiful and Melanie remembers this. So instead of pushing back, of exploding back at Grief…

“G,” Melanie whispers, “Come with me, please.”

Grief rolls her eyes. Melanie takes her by the elbow and walks her to a bedroom. She doesn’t acknowledge her guests. No apologizing, not daring to give in to the shame that could overwhelm her because of her friend. Her somehow newest and best friend.

They walk into Melanie’s guest room. It’s rich and comfortable and soft and cozy. Grief kicks off her pumps and Melanie notices Grief is wearing pantyhose again. Why does Grief love to wear those uncomfortable things? A question for another day.

“What do you want?” Grief says, flopping into the easy chair in the corner, curling her feet under her. This gesture betrays everything.

“Do you need a hug?” Melanie asks.

“The fuck?” Grief exclaims.

“Do you need a hug?” Melanie asks again, lifting her arms.

And then Grief is there, in Melanie’s arms, sobbing, shaking, keening. Grief can’t breathe, she is taking huge gasping breaths, her face buried in her hands. Grief is mortified. Grief is sad. Grief just wanted to be acknowledged.

“I’m sorry, Mel. I know I don’t fit in, I know I don’t wear the right clothes or drink the right thing. I know I’m weird. But I just wanted someone to talk to me. Someone who would ask about me and not ignore me. I’m so tired of being ignored.” Grief picks her head up and her face is covered in tracks from her mascara, thick, black lines going through that foundation.

“I’ll try, Mel, I really will.” Melanie has heard this before. Grief will try. She’ll try to fit in, try to play nice, try to not be such a buzzkill and a burden.

“G,” Mel says gently. “I don’t need you to be different. You are not the problem. If people can’t get past your fashion or your presence, that’s their problem. You are here to stay with me. And people who can’t welcome you are free to leave.”

Grief takes a deep breath, steadies herself.

“Can I have some water?”

“Of course,” Melanie fills a glass from the adjoining bathroom. She keeps glasses near every sink now because water always seems to help Grief when she’s in a state like this.

Grief drinks as if she’s been in a desert for 40 days and 40 nights. She turns to Melanie.

“Hey, do you remember that time we went to that concert in the park and ate a picnic in the grass?”

Of course Melanie remembers. “Oh, that was so much fun.”

“Could we go on another picnic? Regardless of whether there’s a concert”

“Hell yeah we can,” Melanie replies. “Can I bring cheese?”

“Yeah. You have good cheese. It’s not a disaster.”

“Oh, I know,” Melanie replies, smiling.

Grief takes her position in the chair, Melanie lays on her side on the bed, facing Grief. Giving Grief her full attention. Grief tells her the best stories and Melanie remembers every detail Grief tells her as if she’s experiencing it again.

“I’m sorry, G,” Melanie says. “I should have spent time with you tonight.”

“Yeah, you should have,” Grief replies. “But it’s ok now.”

Guests leave slowly. Grief and Melanie rejoin the party, Grief right next to Melanie as she cleans the kitchen, changes into her PJs, and gets in bed.

“Good night, G,” Melanie calls out.

“Good night, Mel. See you in the morning.” Grief closes the door and sits on that custom couch in the living room. Drinking tea. Knowing it’s just a matter of time until her and Melanie have to work this out again. But for now, she lets Melanie sleep and sits vigil to keep the ghosts away.

Day 4

I can’t find his smell anywhere.

Of the many things cancer took from us, one of the most profound and most upsetting what his smell. Andy smelled of clean clothes, cold air, fleece, and, there’s no other way to say it, man. He had this wonderfully comforting smell that I would breathe in while nestled in his chest, folding his laundry, or even walking hand in hand. I would lean over and, like a weirdo, just sniff his shoulder. A deep inhale that would soothe my frazzled nerves and remind me that home is wherever that shoulder was.

Cancer took that smell. In the last few months of his life, Andy smelled of antiseptic, skin barrier (which has a sort of cloying thick smell), and cough syrup. He didn’t drink cough syrup, but the combined smells of all the other stuff on him would create a distinct smell of cherry cough syrup. The kind that used cherry to help make it go down, but really it was an insult to cherry because really it just tasted like medicine.

Andy gave me that joke. When he would do his colonoscopy prep (12 total in his last 15 years), he would get a big jug for the prep medicine and they would include this little packet labeled “lemon” with a cartoon lemon on the front. As if the lemon would help what was ahead of the prepper. Andy would leave it taped on the jug during the whole process and regularly remark, “That packet is an insult to me and to lemons. Nothing can help this stuff.”

I searched for his smell for weeks. I handled every piece of clothing, every hat, sock, jacket, pillow case, everything. And all I got was laundry detergent or that sickly smell of cancer.

Friends said, “Keep looking. I’m sure there’s something.” But there isn’t.

Not having his smell is the cherry on the shit sundae of this situation. While this all was going down, I would imagine that I could at least bury my face in his green fleece jackets and still breathe him in. But, no. I have to construct the smell from memory. And then I get a lump in my throat from the thought of that smell, the missing that smell, and the injustice of everything with this.

How can he be gone? How?

How are people who are way shittier and way more awful still alive while Andy isn’t? Is this part of some cosmic plan to teach everyone who touched Andy a lesson? Is Andy the center of some great wave of learning?

If so, fuck that.

I said in Andy’s eulogy that this was a cosmic injustice. And I stand by that. The slightly less cosmic injustice, more of a galactic injustice, is this absence of his smell.

Day 3

I’ll never forget the moment I snapped at one of my clients after Andy’s death. They were talking about a struggle at work, as all my clients do because that’s what I want to know. They were going on and on and onandonandonandon about it. I finally broke in and said

“It could be worse. Your husband could die of secret cancer.”

I hadn’t planned on using Andy’s death as a source of perspective. People had already been downplaying my capability, not allowing me to stand in my truth by saying things like ,“I don’t want to complain to you. My problems are so trivial compared to yours.” Um, yes, they are, but also you don’t get to decide for me what I can and can’t handle. And if you’re self-conscious about your complaining, go work that out with you and your therapist. I was trying to get people to include me. Weaponizing his death was not in the plan.

I had deliberately kept myself away from others and eased back into work so I wouldn’t compare the death of my husband to someone’s workplace issue.

Because they aren’t comparable and it’s not fair to either of us to compare it.

But I couldn’t take it. Some people I just want to shake and shock them into some perspective.

So I said it. And they stopped and redirected to actual problem solving. To not just stewing in their juices, but to actually getting out of the juice, or seasoning the juice. They shifted.

“Those who cling to the world, endeavor to free them…”

That’s what I had always sought to do; made it my life’s work to free people from burden–real or self-imposed.  But with Andy’s death, it became more vital to give people perspective. I would look at my clients and think, I know it feels hard. I got into this work because I wanted things to feel less hard for others. But in comparison to this, it’s just not that bad. Have gratitude that your worst problem is an overlong email chain and not an overlong life ahead of you without your soul mate.

I only had to say it once. I only had to shock someone once and I never used Andy’s death that way again. I never told someone to feel less because I was feeling more. People have told themselves to feel less while I feel more, and for their self-awareness I am grateful.

I’m told that my grief doesn’t have to be a lesson, that I don’t have to learn something or teach something out of it.

But I am a learner and I am a teacher, so I will do both.

Don’t tell me it’s the rainforest when I know it’s the desert. Don’t tell me not to share my desert. Don’t presume to know my desert. My desert has a lush oasis that I go to when the solitude and sun are too much. And sometimes I leave the oasis when the beauty and comfort is incongruent with my pain. So I climb a dune and look around and help a pilgrim on their journey through the desert. I am allowed to help and I am allowed to walk away. And I’m allowed tacky umbrella drinks if that’s what fits in my oasis.

Day 2

Grief is unknowable.

We lack the right words to describe this feeling. We try with “sad” or “overwhelming” or all sorts of metaphors,  but this feeling, of love lost and yet still alive, is so beyond the realm of words. I bet there’s a good word for it in German or Swedish. It’s something like liebeschmerzen. Which literally means love-pain. I know a tiny bit of German because my husband was enamored with his German ancestry.

I am incomplete. Maybe that describes it.

I don’t forget Andy is gone, but the feeling fades and then reemerges.

The idea of recovery, of moving on, is a farce. And even if it were possible, I don’t know if I would want to move on, to recover from the greatest love of my life. Do you see how absurd that is? The idea of recovering from love? It’s just not possible, nor is it wanted. I don’t want to “recover” from Andy like one would a cold or an addiction. I want him to be fully embedded in me. I want to never forget him.

I want him back is what I want.

We’re experiencing an unprecedented time right now. Our city, the city I grew to love because of him, is being told to stay home, keep your distance. Our love grew from our work in theatre, which is an industry that requires a lot of people and a lot of close proximity. I don’t know how to exist in this city when I’m being told to stay away. It’s painful. It’s a new kind of grief to not experience his hometown, which served as a cocoon for me,  while everything is so scary.  I have to keep me and my son isolated from all the things we love that remind us of Papa.

Well, not everything. I’m breaking some rules by still having limited contact with a few people: His sister and her family, who I helped move earlier this week, friends I met because the husband and Andy were co-workers and are now among my favorite people on the planet, my son’s godparents who were chosen because of their level of love for our son and the similarities between them and me and Andy. I’m still seeing all of these people who remind me of him. Because everything in this city I get because of him. Everything I love, my son, my house, my job, it’s all because of him.

So there will never be recovery, moving on, feeling better. There is only moments of not feeling terrible. Don’t ask me how I’m doing. The answer is rote, unfeeling, and untrue. I’ll always tell you I’m “hanging in there” because that’s the only option right now. But it’s a form answer. Almost as form as “Fine,” but with more details so you leave me alone.

I’d rather answer “How has it been lately?” or the real question you want to ask “How on earth could I survive what you are dealing with? Can you give me a hint that it’s survivable? Could I do what you’re doing? Could I do it and not collapse in on myself? You haven’t collapsed, is that a sign that you can live without your person?”

I am not living without my person. I am not surviving. What I am doing is making anew. Which sounds romantic and poetic and really it’s just the fucking truth. I have the beautiful human, my son, my tiny Andy, who needs my care and love every day. I can’t collapse in on myself because he would be left alone. And the grief of that, that is on par with the grief of losing Andy.

I do what I do for him. For Ronan. I haven’t yet started doing it for me. For now I sleep and eat and work and go to therapy so I can be a loving mother to my beautiful son who did nothing to deserve this and will never know his Papa the way I did. Maybe this will shift. I hope it does so life doesn’t feel so fucking meaningless sometimes.

No guarantees you’ll survive this. It remains to be seen if even I’m surviving this. For now I am building anew and I don’t have a plan beyond “stay alive so you can raise this tiny human to be beautiful.”

Day 1

I used to be selfish.

I used to be broken to the point that everything I did or everyone I interacted with had to circle back to me. I’m a psychologist now, but I don’t need my fancy credentials to tell me that this need existed because of how I grew up, how I was raised, how I was loved. I was not loved in the way I now know children should be loved–unconditionally, fully.

So I had to make everything about me so I could get love, attention, affection, help.

Then Andy got sick. Stage IV hit us like a slap across the face. And suddenly, I had a reason for my selfishness. I could lean into the victimhood of cancer and show off my caregiving. Which makes it sound like I used caregiving as a means to an end, but really, caregiving was what I would have done anyway. Because Andy was worth it. Andy was worthy. Andy was the only person on the planet–besides my son–who was worth my tireless focus and energy. Not tireless. Entire. Because I was tired. And I talked about that because that was part of the victimhood.

As we got deeper into cancer, I could lean even more into that selfishness, the need to be at the center, to be praised in excess, to be loved without limits, to be shown unconditional support. It evolved. It went from a need to fill in the broken bits like those Japanese pots that get molten gold poured into the cracks, to actually becoming…healthy.

I could see that no matter how hard it got, how much I was me that people weren’t going to leave. That, if anything, I held the power in this relationship. I could choose to stay or go.

I used to be desperately afraid of being seen as selfish. My dad was selfish. Everything that was good was turned into a way to abuse you. So if I showed even the slightest hint of need, of want, of–again–what I now know is totally normal kid things, it could be weaponized. So the only way to get attention that couldn’t be used against you was to get it by being a victim. Who was the most in pain? Could it be bigger than Dad’s? Can you make your pain bigger than that of an alcoholic narcissist’s?

Turns out you can’t, but you sure can try.

So, after getting all my cracks filled with molten gold, I slowly became mostly whole. I started to see the support not as pity for me and my family, but genuine love and concern. People would donate money and time and food and bandwidth to keep us company because we were worthy of love and attention. We were loved. I was loved.

When Andy died, I got an onslaught of love and attention. And, for the first time, it was too much. I didn’t have the chronic need to fill up anymore, so I could safely say that people could keep their distance. I was no longer filling a pit that had no bottom.

Andy was the first person to help me find the bottom of that pit. His cancer helped to fill it. His death showed me that it is pretty much always full now.  The pit became a lot that became a park for play and respite. (That’s a small nod to Parks and Rec.)

I used to be selfish. Turns out I still am. But I’m not selfish because I need love. I’m selfish because I’m human. I already have an abundance of love.